October 23, 2013 1:44 pm

Britain and France tangle in pre-summit spat over EU regulations

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Britain and France clashed on Wednesday over Brussels’ efforts to cut back on excessive regulations, with Paris warning on the eve of an EU summit that the push risked going too far in dismantling European social protections.

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, is urging more aggressive action and is travelling to Brussels with members of his “business task force” to lobby European leaders on the need to curb EU social and employment legislation.

Downing Street said Mr Cameron’s business team would brief Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and five other economically liberal leaders on Friday morning; François Hollande, France’s Socialist president, was among those not invited.

Plans by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, to streamline EU regulations were expected to be only a small part of the two-day EU summit that starts on Thursday.

But diplomats said it could become a significant point of conflict after Britain and France circulated position papers that appeared to many as in direct confrontation.

The three-page French contribution, dated October 14 but circulated to national delegation only on Tuesday night, warned the “quantitative approach” to reducing regulations was misguided and could weaken EU protections that Paris regards as critical.

“Simplification should be implemented by guaranteeing that the level of requirements in key areas such as consumer and worker protection and environment protection will not be diminished,” said the French paper, obtained by the Financial Times.

In what appeared to be a direct response, British diplomats on Wednesday morning circulated a formulation that would call on Mr Barroso to go even further.

“The European Council stresses that the reduction of regulatory burdens should be a primary objective of all European Union institutions and their leaderships in the coming years,” the suggested British amendment reads.

Mr Cameron will be joined in Brussels by Marc Bolland, chief executive of Marks and Spencer, and Dale Murray, an angel investor, to explain their thinking in a report that called for 30 reforms that they claim could save EU businesses tens of billions of euros a year.

They will meet the leaders of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Estonia, Denmark and Finland on Friday along with Mr Barroso, who argues that the commission is already radically cutting red tape. “We need to hold Brussels’ feet to the fire,” said one UK official.

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One European diplomat called the French paper a “counterblast” to Mr Barroso’s “smart regulation” programme and suggested it could become a significant point of dispute in a summit that otherwise was expected to focus on routine reviews of telecommunications legislation and eurozone reforms.

Mr Barroso has thus far struck a delicate balance in his so-called “Refit” plan, unveiled this month. While he has called for scrapping some regulations – such as occupational health standards for hairdressers that would have prevented them from wearing high heels to work – Mr Barroso has insisted it would not compromise on already agreed goals in environmental or social policy.

“This commission is removing unnecessary burdens on business across all policy areas,” Mr Barroso said in his pre-summit address to the European Parliament Wednesday. “This is neither about calling into question established policy goals. Nor should it be a battle of competencies between Brussels and national capitals. This is about the right dose in using existing competencies.”

Mr Barroso has faced challenges to the effort even from within the commission itself, where some of the 28 EU commissioners resisted giving up pet projects they had been championing.

The French contribution, while agreeing that regulatory simplification should “reduce the administrative and regulatory burden for companies”, would achieve this through additional burdens on the commission, including expanded Brussels impact assessments and mandatory reviews of all EU standards.

Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels


Letter in response to this report:

Essential safeguards coming under attack as ‘EU red tape’ / From Ms Magda Stoczkiewicz

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